If you seek revenge, dig two graves. —Old Chinese proverb.
PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)
“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NIV)
PRAYER FOCUS: Vengeance.
This past week has seen additional atrocities committed by the terrorist group ISIS. In a particularly graphic video, the world has witnessed the slow, horribly painful, amateurish decapitation of an American journalist by a disillusioned British Muslim rapper who became an ISIS jihadist.
Journalist James W. Foley was a Christian. He had been captured and held hostage once before, in 2011, while covering the Libyan Civil War. He responded to his dangerous situation with prayer, not despair. “I began to pray the Rosary,” he later wrote to his alma mater, Marquette University in Wisconsin. “It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. Prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom—an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released…”
After his release from captivity in Libya, Jim Foley continued to report on events in the Middle East, which led to his subsequent capture in Syria, and his horrific death somewhere in ISIS-held territory.
As Christians, what are we to do about this? More to the point, what are we to pray?
Foley’s bishop, Peter A. Libasci of Manchester, New Hampshire, reminded Foley’s family and friends, “A Christian must always remember that revenge does not belong to us.”
In the first part of this week’s Lectionary Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul issues a curious series of commands: hate evil, love one another, hold fast to good; do not lag, be ardent; rejoice, persevere; contribute, extend hospitality. Paul writes in the imperative voice, communicating the imperative to us.
In the second segment, Paul continues: bless your enemies, do not curse them; live in harmony…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Is there contradiction here? How can you simultaneously hate what is evil and not be overcome by it? How do you overcome evil by doing good, yet not avenge yourself? Clearly this is a difficult path to walk.
Let’s be very clear on two points:
One, resisting evil sometimes means using physical force, including military force. Nothing in this scripture, nothing in any scripture, negates the God-given right to self-defense or the defense of others. Acts of war are not necessarily acts of vengeance, nor are they morally equivalent.
Two, the use of force, the management of violence, is not to be undertaken lightly, or as a half-measure. Once we employ force it is essential to prevail; indeed, there is a moral imperative to win.
As our Lectionary Scriptures remind us this week, we must also oppose evil when the threat is not deadly. One way we do that is by treating our prisoners humanely. We meet their physical needs such as thirst and hunger. We show them mercy even though they might not show us the same. We take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.
Evil is not overcome by accommodating it, by appeasing it, or by making excuses for it. Evil is evil, and cannot coexist with good. We must confront it and overcome it. Scripture affords us no wiggle room, no conscientious “opt-out” in the struggle against evil.
Does resisting evil, even to the point of fighting, diminish our witness for Jesus Christ? No, it shouldn’t. Not if we fight when we have to and leave any/all vengeance in the hands of Almighty God.
Consider the story of Nikolai…
Born in 1881, in what we now know as western Serbia, Nikolai was the first of nine children. His father was a farmer. He was raised in the church and was mentored in his faith by his mother.
Nikolai applied to his country’s military academy, but was rejected because he wasn’t physically strong enough. Instead he earned University Degrees in Western Europe and in Russia. Nikolai first became a monk and then an Orthodox priest. He displayed an ability to address large audiences and speak convincingly about his beliefs. He rose quickly in the Serbian Orthodox Church to Bishop. In 1915-16 Bishop Nikolai toured the United States raising relief for the Serbian people and drumming up support for America’s intervention in World War I.
During the period between the World Wars, Serbia was annexed into the larger nation of Yugoslavia. Bishop Nikolai became an activist, speaking out against the rising evil of State Collectivism in all its various forms: Communism, Fascism, Socialism, and National Socialism. This placed him opposite the Soviets, Italians, and the Nazis in the Second World War. When German forces occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, Bishop Nikolai was arrested, and in 1944, transferred to the infamous concentration camp at Dachau. He was liberated by the U.S. 36th Infantry Division in 1945. Although Nikolai survived his captivity, his health was wrecked.
At the end of WWII, the nation of Yugoslavia fell into Communist hands, and Nikolai was considered a threat to the regime. Yugoslavian Communists labored to destroy Nikolai’s reputation, both in Serbia and in the Orthodox Church. Nikolai fled to the United States in 1946. He served as the dean and rector of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary in Wayne County, Pennsylvania until his death in March 1956.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Empire in 1991, Serbia regained its independence. The body of Bishop Nikolai was exhumed, returned to his native land, and laid to rest next to the graves of his parents.
The damage done to his reputation has been repaired. On May 19th, 2003, the Serbian Orthodox church recognized Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich (or Nikolaj Velimirović, in Cyrillic: Николај Велимировић) of Ohrid and Žiča as a saint.
Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, a man of God, confronted evil everywhere he found it. He opposed evil with all of the tools at his disposal. He suffered through the inhumanity of one of the most notorious concentration camps of the Third Reich. Nikolai never stopped pushing back against evil. He spoke, he wrote, he preached, he served at every opportunity. He walked the difficult path of opposing evil while blessing those who cursed him.
Over the past two decades, historians and religious scholars have recovered many of Nikolai’s writings along with transcripts of his speeches. In 1999, Prayers by the Lake was translated into English.
The following is one of his prayers, which we commend to you on this somber Monday:
“Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an un-hunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.
Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:
so that my fleeing to You may have no return;
so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;
so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;
so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;
so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;
ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.
Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.”
As the nations of the world, including most Muslims, recoil in horror at the unmitigated evil presented by ISIS, let us take a moment to remember that even in the preparation for, and prosecution of, war, Christians are called to be witnesses to a loving and merciful God, who alone lays claim to all vengeance.
It’s Monday Morning. Please pray for those who are grieving the mounting loss of lives and loved ones in the Middle East. And pray for those who are now moving to confront the terror that has caused it.